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The Weight of Living

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there's an albatross around your neck,
all the things you've said,
and the things you've done,
can you carry it with no regrets,
can you stand the person you've become,
oh, there's a light
- bastille

Cook knows a lot of fucking useful information, like how many pints it takes for him to get that good buzzing noise in his head that blocks all the bad shit out (six), how many spliffs to smoke until he feels like he's floating (three, although it depends on who's rolling it), how long a girl can play with his balls before he comes (about ten seconds, give or take – that one he's always going to have to work out).

He also knows a lot of fucking useless information, like how much a Signma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG lens costs (21,100 fucking pounds, it looks like a giant dildo; it was one of his mum's dumber ideas when she started making money); how to tell the difference between white oil paints (titanium white is opaque and non-yellowing; pure titanium is chalky, pure zinc is not opaque enough, and cremnitz white has toxic lead); how to speak some conversational French (well, he definitely knows how to ask if a girl wants to willy-waggle, the rest doesn't really matter, does it?).

And he's learning new shit that's now fucking relevant. Like mens rea, whatever that Latin shit is, and mitigating factors and other legal bullshit terms that make him want to down a bottle or bash someone's head in.

(He already did that though and look where it got him.)

"…Between his blood alcohol level and what he smoked plus what the man did…" He tunes it out before he can register Freddie's name.

Cook closes his eyes and drifts.

**

Voluntary manslaughter by reason of provocation. Basically, there wasn't any pre-meditation, but once in the situation (life or death, he fucking killed Freddie, fuckfuckFUCK), Cook intended to hurt (kill) the bastard. His lawyer also plans to add the drinking bit as a "mitigating factor," maybe even argue that he has a problem or whatever.

(He wants to butter the crowd up, play up how if Cook didn't break out of jail, he wouldn't have been able to spend time with Freddie, his best friend, the only person who was there, blah fucking blah.)

Whatever.

**

He gets sentenced to four fixed years. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with Foster and everything to do with the fact that he skipped out on his last sentence. Amazing that somehow he's found not guilty of something he knows he's guilty of; he did murder that evil prick and frankly, he didn't suffer enough for what he did, the fucking cunt. He thinks the broken ribs and busted knee helped too.

He figured he'd get at least ten. There's talk about good behavior and parole after the four years and all that, but all he can focus on is Naomi fucking crying in the courtroom. Jesus, like it's hard enough as is – don't need anyone making more of a fucking tragedy about it.

(It's really not until he's taken out of the courtroom does he realize he's probably been crying for over an hour.)

**

Thing is, he can't even begin to explain why he ran off in the first place. Sure, he got restless – he's always fucking restless, he knows that – but it was different. Maybe it was like he knew it was all going to go to shit and he might as well try and be part of it while it still wasn't too bad.

Oh, fuck it.

**

It goes by in a blur. The days are fucking slow and the nights are worse, but he can't even tell you what the fuck has happened.

All he can really think of is his list of visitors, how he adds everyone – JJ, Naomi, Emily, Pandora, Katie, Effy, fucking Thomas even.

He only leaves out his brother – he can't let Paddy see him like this and his mum would fucking never let him to begin with.

**

He's like a ghost, figuring out the lay of the land, tricks of the trade, that sort of thing. He gambles for cigarettes at the end of his first week because he's out and once he wins his pack, he walks away.

(Pussy.)

**

For his first visit scheduled, Emily, Naomi, and Katie come. He's glad that Emily and Naomi are back together again – they're the least fucked up couple he knows and not that he'd admit it, but he's invested in them.

Katie, well. Frankly, he has no fucking idea why she's here.

Naomi rushes forward and hugs him so tightly that he has to pinch her arse to get her off him – he couldn't fucking breathe and his ribs still hurt.

"Prick," she grumbles, but she's smiling.

Emily's next and her hug is definitely more manageable, but he's surprised when he finds tears in her eyes.

"Aw, Emilio, don't cry for me," he teases.

"Shut up. I have dust in my eye," she retorts with a hard slap to his arm.

He first assumes his hug with Katie will be stiff and awkward. She may have had a ton of boyfriends, but she's all pearl necklaces and frigid insults. She smiles something soft and is slow to bring her arms around him, breathing in and squeezing just enough to make it count.

He almost doesn't want to let go when an officer clears his throat.

**

"How is it?" Naomi asks. Her eyes are red.

"Bit boring. Won some fags in poker."

Emily and Naomi smile weakly, but Katie actually snorts in amusement.

Emily and Naomi whip their heads to stare at her, but she just looks at Cook dead in the eye, a smile still on her face. "Some things just won't change."

He blinks in surprise, but eventually manages a grin.

The other two lose the tension in their shoulders.

"So, my favorite lezzos, what's the plan?"

The rest of the time involves Emily and Naomi explaining their plans to travel for the remaining months before September, when they'll both start college in London. (He considers asking about Effy, but he's chicken shit, he doesn't really want to know, he can only imagine what her pain is like if it’s anything like his.)

"We'll send postcards," Naomi promises. "And we'll come back to Bristol before we start school –"

"Relax, Naomikins. You deserve it. Have fun for me."

Tears fill Naomi's eyes and she nods earnestly. Emily brings an arm around her shoulders.

When his hour is up, he hugs everyone again. Naomi whispers "I love you" and kisses his cheek, Emily reiterates Naomi's promise to write, and Katie, well –

"I'll see you in a few weeks, yeah?"

**

Where the fuck is JJ?

**

There's a fight. It happens on accident, honest, but when his hands curl into fists, he remembers Foster's fucking face and the blood and crunching bone

Before he knows it, he's puking his guts out on the concrete and guards have stepped in to separate them. Some A Clockwork Orange bullshit.

**

He gets put into fucking therapy. They think there's something wrong with him, like he's mental.

It's a group – some of them he's sat with at meals, others he hasn't seen around yet. They all look angry.

The therapist – he almost wants to fucking laugh – is a Jamaican woman who is half their size and looks like she'd fall over if it's windy enough, but she has a fierce gaze that manages to shut up all ten of them if they get too rowdy.

**

The first letter he gets is from Panda. The return address is from the US.

It's pages long in which she goes on and on about how lovely Harvard is – the people, the buildings, the classes, the fucking trees. She maps out her class schedule and a hand-drawn map of the campus, showing him that she has to run across campus half the week to make it to back-to-back classes.

I'm making loads of friends, but I still miss everyone at home. I'm coming back to Bristol for the holidays, so I'm coming to see you around then!!! In the meantime, we can be pen pals – my address is on the envelope, so don't throw it out!

Miss you Cookie <3

With lots and lots of love,

Panda

He re-reads it so many times that he can almost recite it word for word.

**

Katie comes alone.

They hug and he doesn't realize how much he misses being tactile until now.

"So, Kit Kat, what's shakin'?"

Katie rolls her eyes. "Well, Ems and Naomi are being annoying fucks with the packing and the planning. Honestly, they're terrible. Almost can't wait for them to leave."

"Nah."

She sighs. "I know I'll cry like a baby when they do," she admits. "We've never been apart like that before."

"She'll be okay."

She nods. "I know. As much as I hate Naomi half the time." She gives him a brief, apologetic look. "Sorry."

He shrugs. "Naomi and I are cut from the same cloth – we can both be pretty fucking annoying."

She laughs a little. "Right."

"What about you?"

"What about me?"

"I mean…are you doing school? Taking time off? What?"

She sighs tiredly. "I'm going to work. Save up some money and…" she trails off.

"What?"

She looks at him for a few seconds before saying, "Might keep Effy company."

Ah. Hence the hesitance.

He forces himself to breathe in and out evenly. "How is she?"

She shakes her head, re-crossing her legs and picking off some lint from her skirt. "Not good." She looks at him. "She hasn't left her house since rehab."

He nods because he doesn't know what the fuck to say to that.

"She doesn't speak anymore. Apparently this is how she used to be before college, so it's not something to really worry about according to her mum, but I still worry."

It's quiet for a few minutes, but he doesn't mind.

"Naomi and Emily are going to try to see you next before they go, so. I'll just see you next month."

"Alright." He nods and looks down at his hands. "Thanks," he mumbles.

"For what?"

He looks at her and she's genuinely curious.

When they hug to say goodbye, he holds her tightly and kisses her forehead.

**

People leave Cook when it's too fucking hard to be with him beyond partying, and even then he goes too hard, pisses off everyone, so he's really got jack all.

Being in prison is easier – they can pick and choose when they want to deign him with their presence. And even then, there's a time limit, sorry, don't make the rules, gotta dash, see you when I can, life's very busy, y'know.

The weird thing is, the real kick in the nads, is that the one who is the most consistent with visiting is Katie Fucking Fitch.

(Where the fuck is JJ?)

He only put her name on the list of visitors because she's part of the crew. The only times she doesn't come are when anyone else decides to visit him, or she's scheduled to work and can't change it.

"I put some cash in your account – I did quite well for myself on my last job," Katie says with a smug expression on her face.

"Why are you so good to me, Katiekins?" he asks in what he tried to be a jokingly, but it really comes off more serious than he'd like.

Her smug smile softens into something smaller, but more genuine. "Because you're my friend." She clears her throat and re-crosses her legs. "Besides," she continues, "How else are you going to afford all those fags that you're smoking?"

He laughs. "True." He shakes his head. "I miss beer. Alcohol. Drugs."

"Tell you what – I'm going out with coworkers later – at eight. On the dot, close your eyes, and imagine drinking a pint. I'll have one for you."

"Thought you didn't drink beer. Ruin your figure," he says, making sure to eye her properly.

She rolls her eyes. "I'll make an exception for you."

**

Later, he's sitting on his bed, staring at his watch. He imagines Katie getting ready, taking the time to roll her thigh-highs up her leg, apply her makeup, do her hair. He imagines her splurging and taking a cab to the bar, managing to get a prime seat and nursing a pint for the next few minutes. At eight, he closes his eyes and he can imagine the fizziness on his tongue, the cool burn down his throat and settling warmly in his stomach.

**

One visit, she comes in when he's still healing from a black eye and a split lip.

Her eyes widen, she inhales sharply, and freezes.

"It looks worse than it is."

That doesn't seem to put her at ease.

"It got broken up before I could hit him back. My record is still squeaky clean."

She exhales.

**

Group therapy has been fine. He doesn't talk too much, but hearing other people's stories has been interesting. It put some things into perspective, and others, well.

The wincing around the circle when he mentions his dad nearly burning his face off is a bit of validation that he doesn't like admitting he needs.

**

Panda still sends him letters. She tells him stories about life on campus and it's nice to vicariously live through her. Sure, history is usually boring, but she knows him well and shares the stuff that he'd like, like epic battles and political schemes. It's cool.

She always writes about Thomas' running, which he's apparently amazing at.

To be honest Cookie I'm thinking about breaking up with Tommo. I love him I always will but I want to be on my own for a little while. I let boys take over and while I love sex it's great I kind of want to go back to a time when I didn't know about it. Does that make sense?

I love you lots – write to me soon!

<3 Panda

P.S. One of my mates saw a picture of you on my phone and said they'd be willing to willy waggle with you, so it's one more thing to look forward to!

He shakes his head with a laugh and carefully keeps the letter with the other ones she's sent.

**

Where the fuck is JJ?

**

He calls Naomi as much as he can, usually after her classes while she's on her way home or when she just makes it back and he can speak to both her and Emily. They're doing well for themselves, not a surprise. Naomi fills him in on her classes, like her one professor who's a sexist dick and the student in her class she's in competition with to subtly insult the professor the most. She seems really good and Cook couldn't be happier.

"How are you, Cook?"

"Oh, y'know, same old, Naoms. Nothing's new with Cookie."

"Katie is still visiting you, yeah?"

"Yeah, every other week. It's weird. Uh." He looks down and wraps the cord around an index finger. "Never really hung out with each other before."

"Yeah…I guess not. Is it bad?"

"No," he's quick to say. "No, it's not." He doesn't really know how to describe it. "We're friends now," he says.

"Well…that's good. I suppose. Maybe during the holidays she won't insult me so much."

"Baby steps, girl."

She laughs and it makes him smile. His first one in three days. "We've put aside days for the holidays to come back to Bristol. We'll come see you."

"Okay, yeah. That would be nice."

"Good."

Cook hates awkward silences. "So! Did you and Emilio pick out a wall color yet for your bedroom?"

He listens to her tell the story of how they finally decided to paint the room green until he's told he has a minute left.

"Gotta go, babe. I'll try to call next week."

"I have a study group next Wednesday. Try Tuesday or Thursday."

"Will do. Ciao."

"Take care, Cook."

He hangs up and one of the inmates mutter, "How many fucking girls does this prick have?"

He smirks all the way back to his cell.

**

"Naomi told me she and Emily are coming back for the holiday," he says to Katie. "I figured I'd tell ya as a warning since you'll probably have to house them and listen to them bang each other."

Katie groans, throwing her head back. "Great. Looking forward to that."

He grins.

"Did you hear from Pandora recently? She's making it back for the holiday."

"I haven't gotten post yet, but that's great. Miss her."

"Yeah – I'll work out the visiting. Naomi and Emily can visit before Christmas and Panda and I will go after."

"It's a good thing I don't have to pay you to organize my schedule."

"I would've given you a friends' discount," she quips with a teasing smile, pulling out her small notebook to write reminders for herself, like calling everyone to make sure they follow the schedule. "You don't mind I come with Panda, right? I just figure it'll be good for someone to be with her and –"

"Yeah, no problem. Guards may miss you that week."

She straightens in her chair. "Really?" she preens.

He laughs a little. "Yeah. Ya give them quite a show with those business skirts."

"Well, when your arse looks this good, it's a crime not to show it off."

"No arguments from me."

She smiles and puts her notebook away.

"What about…" he trails off, chickening out at the last second.

"Five minutes," a guard drawls.

The smile on Katie's face fades a little. "Effy?"

He swallows and nods.

"She's, um. She's a little better. She's walking around her neighborhood. She has good days and bad days."

She suddenly looks very tired.

"How often do you take care of her?"

"Uh…a few days a week? I try to work it out with her mum."

He nods. "Well, give her my best, would you."

She smiles. "I will."

He's pretty sure it's a lie since Effy doesn't seem stable, but he appreciates her trying.

**

He calls Katie on the weeks she doesn't visit. At first he didn't, but after the third month, she insisted.

"Really, Kate, there doesn't seem to be a good time to call you –" he starts.

"Nonsense, this is great timing. I'm just running some errands before I have to meet a client about some centerpieces."

"The fuck is that?"

"You know – those pretty things on the center of tables at parties."

"What, like flowers and shit?"

"They can be. Look, it's fine. It makes me feel better. Unless…"

"Okay, yeah, I just don't want to fuck up your job or your life…" he mumbles.

"You're important too. Way more important than that slag I'm working with at the moment."

"Did she finally decide on a pattern for –"

"Don't. I can't talk about it!" she whines.

He grins and listens to her complain and vent – it's kind of nice. It's also kind of hot hearing Katie curse, but he for once shows a little restraint. They may only see each other twice a month, but he'd rather not deal with his heel in his foot the next time he sees her – all the guards fucking love her, so they'd let her get away with it. Cocks.

**

"Please tell me you were banging at least half of them," one kid – his neighbor – asks him during lunch.

"'Course I was," Cook says with a mouthful of mush. "They miss me something awful. No other cock can fill them up, they tell me. They can only come when the Cookie Monster talk to them."

The kid sniggers and begins telling some bullshit story about a girl, but Cook lets him, nodding and laughing in all the right places. There's no point in explaining that no, he's not a poof, but all his guy mates are fucking gone: Freddie's dead and JJ has flown the fucking coop.

Where the fuck is he?

**

It's his last time seeing Katie for a month.

"Katie?"

The smile on her face from the story he just finished telling falls a little. "Yeah?"

He shuts his eyes. "Where's JJ?"

When he opens them, she looks heartbroken.

"I don't know, Cook," she admits quietly. "He left soon after the trial."

He grits his teeth and nods.

"I'll find him for you," she promises, a determined expression on her face. "I'll find him."

He exhales, not knowing what to say except –

"Thanks, Katie."

She smiles and he feels a little lighter than before.

**

He throws his arms open. "Babe."

Naomi grins and runs into his arms. "I've missed you so much," she says in his ear. After a few moments, she steps back. "Did you get bigger?"

He wiggles his eyebrows and rolls his hips once.

She scrunches her nose. "Twat."

"I've been liftin' more," he answers as Emily walks forward more calmly than Naomi, but she also has a genuine smile. "Emily, Emily, Emily."

"Hey, Cook. You look fit."

"Aw, thanks. That warms my heart."

They got him two books – one is a memoir –

"Really? Naomi?"

She flips him off. "It's good, I promise."

And some ridiculously huge fantasy novel that will keep him occupied for a while.

"Naomi, darling, can I have a minute alone with Cook?" Emily asks when there is five minutes left of the visit.

Naomi smiles at Emily and Cook before leaving them to go over to the doorway, immediately spotting the only female prison guard to talk to. Of course, his lezzo feminist girl.

Emily sighs and curls her hair behind her hair in a weirdly Katie-like way. Super fucking eerie. "Katie and I have conflicting schedules. We text sometimes and get a phone call in every other week, but it's hard," Emily starts to say, eyes darting from the table to somewhere around his shoulder. "We're really busy. But…you've been really great. I know that this isn't a choice, and I know…part of this is for Naomi, but thank you. Katie tries to be strong all the time, but you know some of it's a show, right?"

He furrows his brow. "She's always strong," he says. "Just because she may be stressed or unsure doesn't make her weak."

"She likes to put up a front though."

"Don't we all, Emilio?"

Emily exhales with a small smile. "Who'd of thought you'd be the wisest out of all of us?"

"I always was, you just couldn't get past my looks and giant cock."

She rolls her eyes. "And he's back. I have one last gift that I think you'll like more." She holds out her hand across the table. He narrows his eyes, but reaches across and takes it. "Oh Cook," she sighs loudly for everyone to hear. "We miss you so much. You know you're the only bloke we share our bed with. We miss your giant cock."

Cook wants to laugh so hard, but he forces it down and says with a struggle. "I know it must be hard, Emily, but be strong for me."

"We will. We think about you every night."

"I'll be out before you know it, love."

"When you get out, you're not leaving our room for days."

Naomi comes in and before he knows it, she's kissing the hell out of him, tongue and all. He hasn't snogged anyone in months and it feels so good

She steps away all too soon and says, "Don't forget about us."

He brings both of them in for tight hugs. "Thanks for solidifying my rep there, lezzos," he says quietly.

"Happy Christmas, you crazy bastard," Emily says.

**

He usually tries not to think about Paddy, but it's harder during Christmas. Sure, it's fucking depressing in prison in general, but there's still an attempt at the tacky holiday cheer.

He doesn't really feel the cheer until he sees his Panda-Pops come in with the ugliest Christmas sweater and socks, hair pulled into pigtails with stars.

He grins so madly that he thinks he's splitting his face. "Panda."

"Cookie."

She runs toward him and maybe all the guards thinks she's loony and they don't want to go near her to stop her. But to him, she's the most incredible woman in the world.

He holds her tightly and shuts his eyes, blocking everything out.

"Cookie, Cookie," she singsongs in a low voice, rubbing his back. "It's so lovely to see you."

His face is wet and he has to dry his eyes on her sweater before pulling back. "You are the best thing I've ever seen," he says, resting his forehead against hers.

She places her hands on his face. "Ta," she says.

She takes a seat and he looks across the room to find Katie carefully drying her eyes. Katie catches him staring and she smiles at him, gesturing him to sit down.

He looks back at Panda and sits down. "How long are you here for?" he asks, almost afraid to blink.

"Only until the first week of January – I'm going back early for school. You won't believe my professor for U.S. History –"

He sits back and listens for a good while, happy to listen to her speak in her ridiculous language that only a few people like him seem to get. She's picked up some American slang, which is kind of weird (why do Americans fuck up everything that's not how wicked is used, for fuck's sake), but it's still her.

"How you hanging on, Cook?" she asks.

"Oh, y'know, Pandora, one day at a time."

"Y'know…when you get out of the chokey, I'll be your first."

He grins. "Thanks, Panda Pops. I know you'll be gentle with me."

She grins.

**

Ten minutes before visiting hour is over, Katie comes over and sits down next to Panda.

"You alright? You look wrecked and not in the good way," he says to her.

She sighs. "Thanks a lot. This bride is fucking killing me."

"She's the hardest worker," Panda confirms.

"No need to tell me, Panda, I'm well aware," he says seriously. And it's true, he knows.

Katie gives him a tired smile.

**

He hugs Katie first, briefly kissing her cheek. "Thank you, Katie. For everything."

She squeezes back and nods a little. When he pulls away, she gives him a teary smile and says, "I'll see you in January, okay?"

"Alright. Take care of yourself – get fucked up on New Year's for me, yeah?"

She snorts. "Sure, Cook."

And when he hugs Panda, she says in his ear, "You're in good hands, Cookie."

He fucking hopes so because he has years to go and it seems fucking endless.

~**~

It's a new year – 2011 – and Katie is staring at her mirror, debating between bustiers when she wonders why the fuck is she giving a shit about looking her best for James Cook.

She didn't realize how much she was trying until her last one with Panda, when it took her over a half hour to pick an outfit when it used to come naturally.

She always wants to look her best – it's just her standard – and Cook is cursed to seeing and wearing the same outfit daily. Therefore, it is totally acceptable to dress up and give him something nice to look at. She's a caring person – it's the least she can do.

She drops one of the bustiers at random on her bed, snaps herself into the one she's holding, and throws a cardigan and scarf over it.

She doesn’t look in the mirror again.

**

"You get robbed?"

Katie pulls away from Cook and tilts her head to the side. "What do you mean?"

He gestures to her outfit. "Where're your rocks? And your tits, for that matter – those get taken too?"

Katie rolls her eyes and rips the scarf off. It was admittedly cold outside, but in here, it's quite hot. "Better?" she sticks her chest out a bit.

He glances down to check her out, but his eyes stay on hers. "Much better. Unobstructed view of the goods."

She shoves him with a laugh and sits down. "So, did any of the chaps here ring in the New Year with you?"

He throws his head back and laughs. Today's a good day. "Nah, lights out is the same as always, even if it's New Year's Eve. And my cellmate is not getting anywhere near the Cookie Monster."

She shakes her head.

"What about you? Who was the lucky man?"

She waves a dismissive hand. "Ah, some rando at a club. Lost him in the crowd a minute later and good riddance."

"Sorry, Kit Kat."

"S'alright. I wasn't looking for anything."

She leans back in the uncomfortable chair that she is now too familiar with and exhales. The silences aren't awkward anymore – they haven't been for months, but still, there's something itching under her skin. Unsaid words, thoughts, feelings. Whatever.

"So…you have that wedding come up in two weeks, right?"

She's almost stopped being surprised by how much he remembers (it's not like he has much else to distract him). "Yeah, I probably won't sleep."

"You don't have to come visit. Seriously."

"I can do it," she scoffs. "You'll just have to excuse the gross rings under my eyes."

"I'm sure you'll look hot as always," he says in what's supposed to be a leering tone, but it's not really right.

(He's starting to lose himself in here.)

She purposefully adjusts her bustier and she feels half the guys – including Cook – stare at her. Pleased to have him back to normal, she smiles, but her chest still quakes.

**

She works as an assistant to a well-to-do wedding planner in Bristol. The hours are random and long and while the pay is decent, sometimes it doesn't seem like nearly enough for all the bullshit she has to put up with.

She daydreams about punching twats in the nose and declaring I'm Katie Fucking Fitch, who the fuck are you?

She just has to settle for screaming a stream of curses from difficult appointments in the safety of her car.

**

"Do you really need to take off this entire Saturday morning?" her boss asks as she's rearranging the seating arrangements for the third time. Apparently one of the bride's maids has broken up with one of the groom's men because she was sleeping with another. Classy.

"I always take every other Saturday morning off. This won't be a distraction," Katie answers, reaching over to move a piece.

Her boss nods in approval. "I haven't asked since you really have been amazing, Kate, but you know how crazy this wedding has been. I really want you with me all day."

Katie swallows over the lump in her throat. "I'll be quick, I promise."

Her boss exhales softly, running a hand through her short hair. "If I asked, would you tell me what this is about?"

"I'm just visiting a friend. He can't travel."

She doesn't push and Katie can only imagine what she's thinking.

**

She gets a collective fifteen hours of sleep the week before the wedding. Between last minute, absurd requests from the bride-to-be and Effy going through one of her dark periods, needing constant supervision. Effy's mum can handle a lot, but she needs help without her husband. It's difficult.

It's all difficult sometimes.

On Saturday morning, she shuts off her two alarms and gets dressed sluggishly. She's dressing for the wedding so she can rush over after seeing Cook, but the thought of putting on all her makeup is exhausting. She just needs another hour of sleep –

She gets in the car and has to blast the radio all the way to the prison to keep herself awake. Coffee, tea, and espresso haven't done anything for her the past two days, but she keeps trying as she chugs her coffee that's too bitter.

Once she arrives, she exhales and slumps in her seat, eyelids heavy. What if she just –

A sharp knock on her window startles her. Once her eyes adjust to the sun, she realizes it's Cook's cellmate's grandmother – Mrs. Ainsworth.

"You look tired, dear," she says once Katie manages to get out of the car.

"Work. It'll all be over tonight," Katie sighs, pulling down the bottom of her dress.

"It's so sweet how you dress up for him."

Katie is too tired to argue as they make their way to the prison.

The security screening is always a bit of a hassle. Katie only brings her car keys with her, leaving everything hidden in her car since cell phones aren't allowed. Usually she can get through the hour without missing her phone too much, but today it's like she can feel every missed call, text, and e-mail.

She goes through the metal detector and is felt up by George this time, who tends to linger almost a second too long. Prick.

She takes her keys and fiddles with them as she walks into the visitor's room. It's mostly full – she and Mrs. Ainsworth are the last two to arrive. She spots Cook immediately – he tends to stand in the same area. His leg is bouncing under the table.

She walks toward him, heels clicking on the floor and his eyes immediately go to her. His smile is a relieved one as he stands up.

She tries to give him a smile, but her body actually aches and her eyes burn – she just wants to take off this fucking makeup – and she just makes her way over slowly and once she's in front of him, all she can really do lean forward a little and he's there, holding on, solid and encompassing.

"S'alright, Kit Kat," he says. "You just let Cookie take care of you."

She always hated his nickname Cookie and all variations of it, but she's grown to have this soft spot for Kit Kat that hearing it now is making her want to cry. Just when she lifts her arms to return the hug, someone to her right says, "Alright, Cook, Miss –"

"Can we just have -?" Cook starts.

"You know the rules, Cook. Sit."

She feels him tense and she rubs his back comfortingly before pulling back. "It's fine," she says to him. "Sorry," she directs to the guard. "It's my fault." She steps away and sits down, crossing her legs and arms.

Cook shoots the guard a glare before sitting down. "You look nice."

"Thanks. It's really uncomfortable, to be honest." Her eyes fill with tears and she doesn't even know why she wants to cry

"Katie –"

A tear quickly rolls down her cheek. "Sorry, I'm just really tired, ignore – just. Talk to me. What's new with you?"

He swallows and for a moment, he looks like he's actually debating with himself or something, but then his face clearly reads "fuck it," which is more like him, and he plops his hands across the table as an open invitation.

She has her own fuck it moment and she reaches for him, grasping tightly.

"Just don't get snot on my hands, yeah?"

She laughs until she cries.

**

She hides her face in his chest when the hour is up. "Sorry," she mutters.

"It's fine, don't worry about it, sweetheart. Looked like you needed it."

"Yeah, and now I look a horror," she says, pulling back and wiping her face, afraid to eventually see what she looks like in her rearview mirror.

"Still the hottest person in this room."

She smiles and kisses him on the cheek. "Thanks, Cook."

"'Course," he mutters gruffly, almost sheepishly.

"Call me on Wednesday or Thursday if you can – I've got the next few days and I plan on sleeping through all of it, but I'll tell you about the wedding."

"Will do, Kit Kat. Have a Jägerbomb for me."

"Not a bad idea." She reaches over to squeeze his arm. "I'll speak to you in a few days."

**

Katie barely has a sip of champagne as she works the wedding, which is nonstop from the time she arrives at the venue only fifteen minutes late (she did have to redo her makeup in a flash) until the end of the night at one in the morning. She collapses in front of the bar and orders a Jägerbomb.

"You sure, hun? You look like you're a second away from sleeping on the bar."

"Promised a friend – I'll take it to go, then."

So she ends up with a Jägerbomb in a leftover Starbucks cup that one of the waiters was chugging behind the scenes in the kitchen. Once she's home, she downs the drink, falls into bed, and doesn't get up for a good twelve hours.

**

It takes a week to recover, but it's good to be back on her usual hectic schedule. She likes keeping busy with her work, she has her mates, and honestly, being single is such a relief. She's never known what it was like being really single until the end of college and now, but she has to say, it's very underrated.

**

One visit Cook is visibly sad.

"What's wrong?"

His shoulders tense and she doesn't understand why or when or how he internalized everything.

"It's my brother's birthday comin' up."

"When was the last time you spoke to him?"

He clenches his jaw. "Over a year."

She looks down at her hands and she realizes she's forcibly picked off the nail polish from her left index finger. "Your mum is still being a bitch."

"Not unusual behavior."

She bites her lip in consideration. "When's his birthday?"

"Tuesday – why?"

"Call me Tuesday afternoon." She has no fucking idea what she's doing.

"Katie…" he starts.

"So! You have to finish explaining your floor mates – are you sure the ones in the last cell on the left aren't doing it?"

**

She has to look up where Paddy's school is, but it's very posh. Very open. It's not hard to wait alongside the other parents in their expensive cars. She makes sure to park her very cute, but still too affordable car far away enough to attract attention.

She looks around and tries to spot Cook's mum – she recalls him throwing around 'tits in your face' and 'fake red hair,' but nothing seems to fit that description.

Kids start running out and she suddenly realizes her brilliant plan is a load of shit – she doesn't know what the fucking kid even looks like –

"Who are you looking for, dear?" a sweet-looking mum inquires.

"Paddy – I'm an acquaintance of his mum, doing her a favor –" Katie lies out of her arse, panicking about how she doesn't know his last name (it's not Cook, right?) but it doesn't seem to matter because this mum calls out, "Paddy! Over here!" She turns to Katie and says, "He's such a sweet boy. Really good friend to my son."

Paddy is appropriately suspicious, but he trusts his friend's mum, so he walks with her to her car.

"Who are you? Are you one of Cook's friends?" he asks, gazing up at her.

"Yeah – how'd you figure?"

"Cook always says he knows the hottest babes."

She snorts. "Alright, I'll take that."

"Have you seen him?"

She looks down at him, but he's looking down at the ground, scuffing his feet as he walks down the line of parked cars.

"Yeah. I see him. He talks about you all the time."

"My mum won't let me go see him."

"He knows that. I think he's also a little relieved. He doesn't want you see him in there."

"Why not?"

Her phone rings and she smiles. Sometimes Cook has excellent timing. She accepts the charge and waits to be connected.

"Katie?"

"Hey, hold on a mo'." She hands her phone to Paddy. "You only have a few minutes, 'kay?"

His eyes light and he grabs the phone, plastering it to his ear. "Hello?" After a moment, he laughs and jumps up and down in excitement, talking a mile a minute.

She walks ahead to her car, checking behind her every few seconds to make sure he's following her. And also to see that huge smile.

After a couple of minutes, Paddy runs up to her and holds out the phone. She squashes the flair of disappointment that she didn't get to speak to him.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he repeats, running into her stomach and holding her as tightly as he can.

She smiles. "You're welcome. How is he?"

"He was so surprised! He said we couldn't talk for very long 'cause they could be listenin', but he says he's good. Got to tell him about my football. Can we do this again tomorrow?"

She winces. "He can't make that many calls, Paddy. And he's right – about people listening in. You're really not supposed to talk to him without your mum's permission. This was just…a special occasion."

"My mum is a bitch."

She wants to tell him not to say such things, but she can't bother to correct him. "Come on. I'll drive you home. Just don't tell your mum about any of this, okay?"

"Okay."

**

The next week when she visits him, he looks ready to pounce when she enters the room, but at least waits until she's a few feet away before hugging the shit out of her.

"You're the best person I know," he says right by her ear, his mouth brushing against it.

He sounds so earnest that it weirdly enough breaks her heart.

"We may need to re-work your standards," she jokes.

He shakes head and pulls away just enough to rest his forehead against hers. Her breath hitches in her throat, but she can't place her emotions.

"You've been here the way no one else has. Thank you."

She's still in shock when he steps back and takes a seat. "Well? Come on, then, tell me about your disaster of a week."

It's enough to snap her out of it and she sits down, still a bit shaken. "The worst phrase you can ever say to me is, 'I've changed my mind,'" she starts, curling her hair behind her ear and brushing her cheek along the way, hating how warm it still feels.

**

It scares her.

She's the only one in Cook's life, his tether to the outside world and she hasn't grasped it properly until now.

She calls Emily in a fit of panic and she can feel the tightness in her chest loosen a little when she answers.

"Emsy?"

"You alright? What's happened?"

They're trying to be more open – honest – with each other, especially now that they're hours apart and don't see each other very much. Still, it's hard to explain how she feels in regards to her relationship with Cook.

"Does it feel…bad?"

"What do you mean?"

"I dunno…do you want to pull back, maybe?"

"I can't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Because he doesn't deserve that!"

"I'm sure he'd understand if you couldn't visit twice a month every month."

"I don't always visit him twice a month – there have been times when I had to work –"

"Oh come on, Katie, that happened, what, twice? And you speak to him all the time. Maybe some distance would be good, I mean. You're – " Emily cuts herself short.

"What, just say it."

"…You're acting like a girlfriend," she says gently.

"It's not like that," Katie responds immediately.

"It's not?"

"No! I don't fancy him! He's my friend. We're friends. Good friends." She brings a hand to her eyes, debating on saying the thought that popped into her head.

Emily asks her in twin – you can tell me.

Katie responds likewise – I think he's my best mate now.

"Oh, Katie."

Maybe that says something about her, how unavailable she really is when her new BFF is locked away.

**

She almost ignores his next call, but she answers on the fourth ring.

"Hey, Cook," she says when they're connected.

"Did I freak you out? Last week, I mean."

She blinks in surprise. "A bit," she admits.

It's silent for a moment. "You want to skip next week's visit? It's alright, if you do. That was heavy shit, man. I get it."

She swallows. "Did your therapist help you with that?"

"A bit."

She smiles. "Let me think on it, 'kay? Call me next week."

"I will."

"Cook?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm honored. That you think that about me," she tells him because she at least can acknowledge that much. The rest she's going to have to figure out.

**

She calls a few therapists she's heard about, but they're all booked for weeks and she only has one to figure things out, so she calls Emily again.

"I can't believe I'm actually helping you with your friendship with Cook. You two barely interacted in college."

"Yeah, well. Times change. People change."

**

Katie has a choice in the matter of whom she's honest with. She could vent to her boss about some things and complain to her other mates about other stuff; she can technically get by without Cook.

But Cook has no one. Sure, he rings Naomi and occasionally speaks with Emily and writes letters to Pandora, but she's the only one he talks with regularly. She's the only one who hears about his nightmares and his close calls of violence and his fear. He's fucking fearless all the time, but he can get so scared too.

Maybe it's fucked up how she saves all her venting for him, that she limits herself voluntarily just so he's not going through it alone. But she's always been like that – always wanting to be part of a set.

**

Cook calls while she's driving home from a shopping trip with a to-be-bride.

"Hey, Cook."

"Kit Kat. How's it goin'?"

She smiles. "Good. Tired. A lot of walking. Have so many fucking blisters breaking in new shoes."

"Well that's no fun, innit?"

She sighs. "I'm not coming this weekend, Cook."

Pause. "Alright. That's fine."

"It's." She stops herself, composing her thoughts. "I feel like I'm there with you. If that makes sense. It's not that seeing you and talking with you is a burden – it's not like that. It's just…I'm not really letting myself live. Which is horrible to say, I know it is. I'm such a bitch, but. It's true. I'm sorry," her breath hitches and she covers her mouth to muffle the sound.

He exhales – almost like a laugh. "It's funny you say that – being in here with me. It can feel that way for me too sometimes. Makes things easier."

Her vision blurs and she pulls over to the side of the road. "Please call me. I want you to call me."

"Yeah, alright."

"I'm serious, Cook. If you don't call me, I'm going to storm the jail and kick you in the balls."

He laughs. "Okay, okay. I'll call you." Another pause. "Look at us chums. Talking our feelings out. So mature."

"Well you had nowhere to go but up," she quips.

"Touché."

**

That Saturday, instead of sleeping in and maybe grabbing brunch with friends, she goes to Effy's house.

She gets take away brunch for them, but still.

Her mum answers the door with a genuine smile. "It's a good day."

Katie smiles back. "That's good. I'll see myself up."

She walks up the stairs and Effy's door is open. It usually is.

Effy is doing Sudoku on her bed. She's dressed a shirt that probably doesn’t even cover her arse, but she's managed to put on a little makeup. She looks up when Katie knocks on the doorframe and smiles.

"Katie."

A really good day, then.

Katie lifts up the plastic bag of take away. "I've got brunch."

**

Katie does most of the talking, which isn't really an issue. Sometimes Effy chimes in, but usually she just listens and observes. If she really were mute before college, Katie would've found her to be even more fucking annoying than she did when she first met her.

"Smoke?" Effy asks.

Katie pulls out her pack and hands Effy a fag and takes one for herself. She doesn't really smoke that much, but she always smokes with Effy.

Effy opens her bedroom window and lights up first.

"So, what are you doing here?" Effy asks after the first drag. Her first full sentence in over an hour.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you're supposed to be visiting Cook today."

Katie chokes on her breath and coughs, nearly dropping the cigarette out the window. "How the fuck do you know that?"

Effy smirks in that infuriating way, but she explains, "I overheard you speaking to my mum about it a couple of months ago. I'm crazy, not stupid."

"Jesus," Katie says hoarsely, bringing her cigarette back to her mouth.

"Well?" Effy prompts.

"I'm taking some time off."

They smoke in silence for a little.

"You make it sound like it's a job."

"It's not," Katie responds tiredly. "I'm just too involved right now."

Effy doesn't say anything. She's gazing out the window without an expression on her face. Her eyes are always calculating, though, that much Katie knows.

"He doesn't deserve it."

Anger flares in Katie's gut. "What about me? Huh? I'm the only one who speaks to him regularly! And I'm the only one who's stuck around for you! What about my well being?" She stubs her cigarette out on Effy's windowsill. "Fuck this, I don't need this from you, of all people. You broke his heart more than anyone being a selfish cow. Look where it got you."

Katie gets up and grabs her purse, about to storm out when Effy says, "I'm sorry."

Katie pauses in the doorway. "Whatever," she mutters, leaving her behind.

**

She's getting ready to go out – she plans on getting properly fucked. As she's putting on her mascara, her phone rings.

Seeing Naomi's name makes her heart jump into her throat. "Is everything okay?" she demands.

"Everything is fine. Emily is fine," Naomi says. "Believe it or not, I'm actually calling to talk to you."

Katie exhales in relief and sits back on her bed. "Bitch."

Naomi ignores the jibe. "You doing okay? Emily's worried."

Katie groans. "I can't believe her – I told her to keep her mouth shut!"

"I didn't find out from her, I found out from Cook. You forget, Katiekins, that I've been fond of him longer than everyone else."

"You were not. Freddie and JJ were."

"Yeah, well, Freddie's dead and JJ's fucked off, so. There's me."

Katie swallows. "JJ's in Wales."

Silence. "What?"

"Cook wanted to know where he was, so. I went to his house, but it was on sale, so I asked a neighbor. Apparently they all moved. Including that girl he was seeing. She's gone too."

"Shit."

Silence again.

"You haven't told Cook yet. Why? "

"He hasn't asked since I offered to find out for him."

"So you're being a coward."

"If that's the worst thing I'm being, then I think I'm doing great. He doesn’t need that."

"Okay, fine, I'm with you there."

Katie is beginning to hate awkward silences.

"Why do you want to pull back from Cook?" Naomi asks.

"Because," Katie starts, defensive. "I'm…I'm revolving part of my life around him."

"So?"

"So? What do you mean, so? His life is basically on hold!"

"It's not on hold, Katie, he's still alive! He's living his life! He has mates in there and he's seeing a therapist and he's reading and staying fit – he may not be out here with us, but that doesn't mean he's stagnant until you grace him with your presence," Naomi retorts, ending snidely. Then she sighs. "Look, Katie…how he acts toward you and what he says…it's not because you're the only one there for him. You're his friend, a close one, and to him, that means everything."

Katie sighs and looks down at her watch. She has a half hour before her friends are picking her up.

"He always acted like he never gave a fuck about anything," she mutters.

"He doesn't about some things, but everything else…" Naomi snorts.

"What?" Katie asks, annoyed.

"Nothing, just…you both have stupidly big hearts."

Katie scoffs. "You really are stupid." She shakes her head. "Thanks," she says begrudgingly.

"No problem. Take care, Katie."

"Yeah. You too." Katie hangs up, takes a deep breath, and puts on the rest of her makeup.

~**~

Cook has been kind of enjoying group therapy until she fucking brings out the arts and crafts.

"No fucking way," he says at once, his hands curling into fists. "Nah, man," he shakes his head.

"Not a fan of drawing, Mr. Cook?" his therapist inquires, beginning to hand out large sheets of paper.

The last time he did arts and crafts outside of primary school was for that stupid election campaign he only did to piss off (and bone) Naomi.

"No, it's shit."

She forces him, mainly by insisting that if he throws the art supplies across the room, he'll be punished accordingly, so he takes the blue paint and just paints the white sheet blue.

"'Dreaming of Freedom and Saying 'Fuck You, Prison,'" he announces once he's finished. It gets some laughs, but his therapists sighs and shakes her head.

**

She gets him during his individual therapy session.

"I hate art," he says after ten minutes of silence.

"Why?"

He looks up at her with a mix between shock and fury. "Shouldn't you know?"

"Making assumptions isn't considered good counseling," she answers with a shrug.

He snorts. "Well, in this case, the answer is pretty fucking obvious."

"Perhaps. Your words about it are what's important, though."

"For who? You?"

"This is for you. Putting concrete words to your feelings puts them in a new light."

"There's nothing new about my mum being a fucking loony tune with her stupid art."

"You associate art with your mum."

"See? Told you it was obvious."

"What kind of art does she do?"

"Anything. Installations. Duchamp shit."

She quirks an eyebrow. "The one who did the urinal?"

"I prefer his earlier work."

"What did his earlier work involve?"

"Traditional paint on canvas stuff. Modernism."

She smiles at him. "One wouldn't think you'd have formal knowledge about art."

The thing is – it's impossible to grow up with his mum and not know shit about art. He knows things – he used to steal his mum's uni books and look through the pictures and read shit to block out everything. Hell, his mum had tried to teach him a few times. She'd open a bottle of wine, give him a glass or two, and explain gradients and how to mix paints and other shit that he's never had to use in his life.

"Do you have a favorite artist?"

He smirks. "Dalí, probably."

"He did the melting clocks, right?"

"The Persistence of Memory, yeah. I like The Great Masturbator myself," he snickers.

She shakes her head, but the corner of her mouth quirks up. "Not familiar with that one."

"It's weird. Definitely."

"I'll look it up." She smiles "So Dalí's your only favorite?"

He swallows. "Magritte, too."

"Why do you like him?"

"He combines shit that contradicts. Like those paintings with the nighttime neighborhood, but the sky is sunny. It's…"

"Disconcerting?"

"Yeah, exactly."

"Does your mum like Magritte too?"

It's weird how she fucking knows. "Nah, it creeps her out. Same with all his other work with the faces being covered by something. She doesn't like it."

She nods. "It can be a little unnerving, not being able to read people."

"You can't really read anyone, can ya? People can think contradicting things and feel things they shouldn't, even if they don't want to admit it."

"We call that cognitive dissonance in psychology – we want to avoid the discomfort that comes along with it."

"Why? Isn't it better to just embrace it? It's life – fucking live it properly. Feel everything."

"Not a lot of people think like that."

"Yeah, well, it's fucking stupid."

She smiles. "So, will you use some of my art supplies then?"

He barks out a laugh. "Clever." For a second, she reminds him of Naomi.

He bypasses the crayons and takes out a few of the acrylic paint bottles and the brushes.

"What do I paint, then?"

"Whatever you'd like. It doesn't have to be literal objects."

He rolls out the paper and stares at the blank expanse. After a minute, he glances up at her, but she's writing things down on her notepad. He doesn’t know if he should be annoyed or relieved.

He eyes the black and red bottles of paint, debating which one to use until he mutters fuck it and unscrews the caps on both bottles, pouring the paints at the same time onto the paper. He watches the red and black swirl together as they fall onto the paper with a splat. Once they're half empty, he takes a hand and swipes the puddle of paint across the paper. The paint is cool on his palm and between his fingers. When he lifts his hand, it looks like there's blood and tar on it.

He remembers Freddie constantly scraping limbs on the pavement with his skateboard and he uses his other hand to move the paint across the page and he's just swirling paint round and round, jabbing up and down and sideways and before he realizes it, he's ripping the paper with clenched fists, leaving a crumbled mess.

His face is wet and he hides his face by pressing his forehead into the table.

He screws his eyes shut but he can't stop the choked sob from clawing out of his throat. He forces himself to breathe in and out, but he can't manage to get it together, so he tries not to make too much noise crying like a fucking –

He hears her get out of her chair and come around the table. Her sensible shoes are in his peripheral, but she doesn't say anything.

"It's alright," she says, voice soft.

"How," he demands.

"To let it go."

He shakes his head.

After a minute, when he's finally just sniffling, she says, "I could easily see this in some modern museum."

He lifts his head to properly look and he laughs, loudly and a little demented when he sees three distinct crumbled bits of paper – one's blacker than the others, the second is red, like dried blood, and the last has a good mix of both colors and the white of the paper.

If that doesn't properly represent the Three Musketeers than Cook is a fucking virgin.

**

Katie's visiting today for the first time in two months and he's nervous.

"Can you stop hitting the table with your knee?" his cellmate Jason demands.

"Sorry," Cook mutters.

He gives him a funny look, but Cook just scarfs down the rest of his meal in silence.

**

People always think Katie looks put together, but Cook fancies himself an expert in Katie appearances at this point and this time, she looks proper fucked.

"You look a right mess," Cook snorts. "Have fun last night?"

She rolls her eyes and turns red. "Yeah, well. It was a weird night."

He barely waits a second before becoming impatient. "Well? You gotta tell me, girl. Come on."

She sighs. "Honestly, I don't remember much of the night at all past…ten."

"Nice."

"Well, not so much when you're waking up in a stranger's flat totally naked and he's cooking breakfast."

He throws his head back and laughs. "You?"

"I know, me, ha, ha," she says sarcastically. "So awkward." She trails off.

He raises his eyebrows. "So…what? You planning on seeing him again or something?"

She bites her bottom lip – that's a yes. "Yeah…I mean. We got to talking and he blacked out the night before, so he felt guilty, hence the breakfast, but, I didn't remember the night either, so…and breakfast was kinda nice. He made good eggs. So we're going out next weekend." She finishes with a shrug.

He nods. "Alright. Well, hopefully he's actually a good lay. If anyone deserves a good fuck it's you."

Katie smiles, holding back a laugh. "I don't know whether to thank you or slap you."

"Thank me because you know it's true."

She rolls her eyes but doesn't argue.

The silence becomes awkward when it sinks in that their brief phone conversations haven't really been enough to bridge the chasm between them.

"I'm sorry I panicked," Katie says, looking down at her hands. "I've never had a friend like you before. It's different. How open you are. It's brave."

He smiles, but it hurts. "Heard that before."

"Sorry."

He shakes his head. 'It's fine,' he's about to say, but instead he says, "From Eff."

Katie inhales sharply.

"Do you still see her?"

"Not for a while, no," she answers sharply, re-crossing her legs.

"She can piss you off," he says.

"That's putting it lightly, isn't it." She shakes her head. "Why do you still care?" she blurts.

"'Bout what?"

"Her! She broke your heart – with Freddie! And JJ, just –" she cuts herself off, crossing her arms and curling her hands into fists. Her knuckles are white. "Your heart is too big – you know that, right?"

"Look who's the black kettle?" he shoots back.

"That's not the expression!"

"Oh, whatever, same shit."

"It's pot calling the kettle black," Katie says, before bursting out laughing.

He starts laughing as well.

"It's not funny!" she laughs. "I'm trying to be serious! You deserve better than that!"

"Well, I have you now, right?"

She stops laughing.

He shifts a little in his seat. "You treat me better. You, Naomi, Emily, Pandora…you're all alright."

Her breath hitches in her throat. "Um, yeah. Yeah. Okay." She's flustered.

"Sorry," he starts to say, but she interrupts him:

"You're all right, too. Y'know." She smiles.

He smiles back.

**

He receives a letter from Panda that mostly details her final, proper breakup with Tommo. He saw it coming, of course – she was mentioning him less and less, especially after the holidays, but he still writes his "I'm sorrys" and "I know you love hims" and all that. Maybe she'll meet a nice American boy now who won't cheat on her and she won't cheat on him.

He's writing during the last few minutes before lights out. He wants to send it out tomorrow so maybe it won't take so long for her to get it, but who fucking knows.

"Cook?"

"Yeah?"

"We're kind of mates now, right?"

He looks over to Jason and smiles amusedly. "Yeah, sure."

"So…can you tell me which of those girls you've actually shagged?"

"What, you don't believe I shagged them all?"

Jason shrugs his shoulders, unsure. "Doubt you shagged Katie."

Cook exhales through his nose. He craves a spliff. "Katie's a mate," he admits.

"And the other three?"

Cook holds up his letter. "This one, yeah. Hooked up with one. The other's a total lezz."

"Figured. Don't worry, I won't tell."

"You better fucking not. Reputation to uphold in this fine establishment."

Jason grins. "Well, at least you have four fit girls caring about you. Lot more than the rest of us can say."

"Figured."

"My grandmum loves Katie, by the way. Thinks she's the greatest."

He puts the letter under his pillow. He'll have to finish it in the morning. "Yeah, well, no arguing there."

"Do you fancy her?"

"What? No! Sure, her rack is fantastic, but. No, she's just a friend," he immediately responds maybe a bit too defensively.

"Okay, well. Just saying – she's not a bad person to put your affections towards."

"Oh, shut the fuck up and go to sleep before I stuff my pillow in your mouth."

He stays up for a while and counts sheep.

**

His biggest shock of the week comes in the post.

"For Christ's sake, another girl?"

He doesn't know who's speaking because all he can focus on is Karen McClair.

He ends up in a bathroom stall, hands shaking as he opens the envelope.

It's short – full of apologies and reassurances that she and Cook were the only two people who really fucking loved Freddie and she wishes him well.

(It's also a goodbye, but that goes without saying, really.)

**

He tells his therapist that he got a letter from his dead mate's sister.

"What did you feel when you first got the letter?"

Fucking terrified.

"How did you feel while reading it?"

Like I was going to puke.

"And afterwards?"

…Dunno. Empty, I guess.

They talk it out. It's like – Cook knows that Karen had to get away. She wasn't wrong – she does love Freds more than anyone and he's close behind. But she doesn't care enough about him, which Cook supposes could be his own fault, being such a prick, but even so. It's sad, losing her. He has a fuckton of memories of hanging out with JJ and Freddie and Karen. They usually involved her trying to get them to backup dance for her (he still remembers some fucking moves).

But he gets it. He really does.

**

He planned on calling Naomi today, but instead he dials Katie.

"Hey, Cook, is everything alright?"

He furrows his brow. "Uh, yeah, just checking in. Are you with someone?"

"Yeah, actually – last minute. I'm sorry – can you try back tomorrow?"

"Nah – running low on funds. Gotta call Naomi."

"Shit, I'm sorry. I'll see you next week, yeah? You sure you're okay?"

He nods. "Yeah, peachy. See ya next week."

"Bye!"

He hangs up knowing she's not with a client.

**

"I'm so sorry about last week," she says while hugging him tightly. "That guy from – you know – that – he surprised me with take away and –"

"It's fine, Kit Kat. Was supposed to call Naomi that day anyway." They sit down. "So, that's happening, then?"

"Yeah. He's actually really nice. Nicer than a lot of my other boyfriends, especially the last two losers. His name's Drew. He's in his last year at the University of Bristol."

"An older lad."

"Yeah, that's the usual." She shrugs. "He wants to get his Masters."

He nods, impressed. "Smart."

"DJ, too."

"What?"

"Yeah – that's how we first met, I guess. A florist that we use – he knew him since primary school."

He laughs a little. "Well, that worked out for ya."

"Yeah, I guess so."

Silence.

"Will you tell him about me?" he asks, mostly out of curiosity, but also out of something else, something a little darker he pushes to the back of his mind.

She cocks her head to the side in thought. "If it gets serious, yeah. You're important to me. If he doesn't get that, then fuck him."

"You sure you don't want to tell him sooner rather than later, then?" He doesn't know why he's pushing this. "Honesty is the best policy," he japes, just to lighten the mood.

She briefly smiles at him. "I'll let you know when I tell him."

"Alright."

She swallows. "There's something else."

"What?"

She tells him about JJ. She doesn't know any specifics, but it's enough to reassure him that he'll probably never see him again.

"I'm sorry," she says, sniffling.

"It's, uh…" He shakes his head. "Thanks for finding out."

She holds out her hands across the table, but he doesn't take them.

**

He beats the punching bag until he's dripping with sweat and he can't think proper thoughts.

**

(The Anniversary of It comes and goes.)

**

Even though nothing really exciting happens in prison, it still feels like everything is spiraling. He misses his brother and he wishes he could crash in Naomi and Emily's flat in London and he wants to spend a lot more than one hour with Katie. It's typical, to feel outside of the world, on the edge of it. There's talk of depression but it's not it, at least he doesn't want to off himself. Despite everything, he's never wanted it to stop.

At least he doesn't think so.

(He considers the number of times he reached the end of bottle after bottle to feel nothing and wonders if that's his pussy way of stopping it.)

**

Conversations with Katie start to include her new man. It's not a lot – just a mention here and there about a date or a story, but Cook can tell she's serious about him.

"He has a funeral to go to in America – Florida or California, whatever hot place – but when he gets home I'm telling him about you. I mean, he knows about you, he knows we're still talking, but he doesn't know everything."

"Alright," he says, not knowing why it's bothering him that she's not keeping him a secret anymore – it's what he wanted, right?

"Do you want me to…" she trails off, trying to find the right word to say.

"What? Lie 'bout my sentence?"

"Yeah. I mean, I can just say you got caught on the street and nothing about…"

Freddie. Foster. Split knuckles, blood everywhere, broken ribs, a bruised lung, and a fucked up knee.

He shuts his eyes and breathes evenly four times. "You can tell him. Can't hide everything. Besides, I'm sure you'll paint me as the most upstanding citizen."

"He already knows how important you are – that's all that matters."

He feels warmth unfurl in his chest. "Alright."

"I gotta go – tunnel coming up. I'll see you next week, yeah?"

"Right – later, then."

**

He enters the visitor area and instead of spotting Katie first, he sees his mum.

"What the fuck?" he manages to get out and suddenly, Katie is all over him, pressing close and mouth by his ear. He's still and can't seem to move his limbs.

"I swear I had no idea – I showed up and she was there – you know I would warn you," she says in a hush.

He finally moves his arms around her. "I know, Kit Kat," he says before kissing her temple and gently but pointedly pulling away. "Mum," he greets her coldly.

She throws her arms out. "My first baby."

He doesn't return her hug and it lasts forever. She kisses both his cheeks and as they're sitting down, he wipes his face. Katie looks like she's ready to rip his mum's throat out, which almost makes him laugh.

"What are you doing here?" Cook demands.

"Well, I'm on your list of approved visitors."

"That was so you could bring Paddy." Cook pretends to search the entire room. He already scanned the room the second he walked in. "I don't see him 'round here."

"Well, I wasn't going to let you near him until I saw you for myself."

Cook curls his hands into fists on his thighs.

"So! Cook, I have to tell you about my first gay couple as clients," Katie starts, sitting up straight and her chin up in the air. She looks so snotty, pointedly ignoring his mum and he fucking loves her.

"What, is one of them wearing a dress?"

"Honestly, I wish, because finding the right tuxes for these two is turning into a bloody nightmare."

It goes on for a minute until his mum loses her patience because she can't stand not being the center of attention. Of course it's pointless – he doesn't understand what she's getting out of this because she's clearly made up her mind to never have Paddy visit. She's sober now, she had to be in order to be let in, but he wouldn't be surprised if she had a handle in the front seat of her car. What really kills him is the how much it seems to hurt Katie. She does her best to mediate, but her disdain for his mum is so obvious. It's not pity, otherwise it would grate against his skin like nails on a chalkboard – it's just empathy. Sadness.

"Paddy and Cook should write, yeah? I think that's a brilliant compromise," Katie says loudly.

He looks to his mum hopefully and there must be a functioning heart in there somewhere beyond her love of booze and sex and stupid art because she agrees to make something work.

He lets his mum hold him and kiss both his cheeks, tense until she leaves him and Katie alone.

"Thanks," he says.

Katie hugs him tightly. "I'll make sure she goes through with it." She pulls away and leaves a lingering kiss on his cheek.

He tries not to shiver, but the truth is it's been way too long since he's been with a girl and nice touching isn't exactly commonplace behind bars. He smiles and brushes a knuckle against her cheek.

She stares up at him and he stares back, not knowing what's happening until a guard gently leads Katie outside.

He exhales, "Fuck."

It's nothing. It was a fucked up moment that will be forgotten and it doesn’t matter. Whatever.

**

Occasionally he'll have bad luck with calling – usually with Naomi and Emily since they're the busy students. But the third time in a row it happens, there's a ringing in his ears and his grip on the phone is so tight that it hurts his knuckles.

He closes his eyes and takes breaths, just like therapy teaches him. Just fucking breathe, Cook.

He hangs up the phone and manages to get back to his cell and write a letter to them. It's brief – he's not that great with words – just saying he won't call them anymore unless they want him to. That's the mature thing to do, innit?

**

He gets a prompt response back:

Cook,

We're really sorry for not taking your calls. The first two times were honestly bad luck, but the third – that's on us. It's been really stressful – school, life, everything. Emily and I have been going through a bit of a rough patch with our conflicting schedules and sometimes we feel pressured to be at our best when talking with you because we want to make you happy. It's completely mental and stupid, I know.

We love you – take care of yourself and write to us!!!

Love,
Naomi & Emily

**

It's always the same. Day after day.

Week

After

Fucking

Week.

It feels like he turns his head or blinks and the season changes on him. He doesn't remember Freddie's laugh anymore and he forgot the color of JJ's braces.

He doesn't know how many pints will get him get him fucked anymore and he doesn't know how many spliffs it will take to get him high and he gathers that a girl touching his balls will make him come in half of a second, maybe.

Now he knows shit like who was in charge of laundry depending on how soft the uniform is (Oliver does a shit job while James remembers to put fabric softener), which guards during visiting hours will let him hug Katie a few seconds longer (Rosenberg and Mitchell), and how many steps it takes him to get from his cell to the cafeteria (two hundred and fifty eight).

He knows watercolors are unforgiving, but that's kind of like life, so he loves using it over acrylics. He hasn't received a letter from Paddy yet so either his mum is being stubborn or Katie hasn't had time to talk to her yet. He feels trapped and left behind and so fucking uncomfortable in his own body.

His hands curl into fists, but violence makes him fucking nauseous. Like fucking A Clockwork Orange.

He curls his body and faces the white wall, clutching at the rough blankets under him and he sees Freddie's blood mixing with Foster's and Effy's laughing face as she throws back shots. He doesn't remember what she feels like anymore.

I'm Cook.

(You're Nothing.)

He wasn't Nothing before, but now he is, or at least something close to it.

**

"I've been told that you've been painting a lot during rec time," his therapist says at some point during his individual session.

"I'm sure you have my work in that little desk of yours."

She smiles and pulls out one of them. It's a watercolor still life, something he painted from memory in his house, and there's red acrylic paint splattered all over it.

"Why do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Paint so intricately and beautifully, I might add, and toss paint over it? Hiding it?"

Cook grins. "Makes more sense if we talk about the other one I just finished."

She raises an eyebrow. "The one with the nude woman?"

"Venus of Urbino is the name. Titian."

"Alright." She goes into her drawer and takes it out.

He thinks it turned out alright considering the paint and the fact that it was from memory, but he grins at the bright green globs of paint that have dried over it.

"Anything can be ruined. Even priceless things."

She stares at it a few seconds, mouth pursed in thought until she says, "It's still something, Cook. It's not nothing."

It's fucking embarrassing how that makes his nose hurt and his vision blur.

**

"Are you okay?"

"What?"

"I feel like we haven't really spoken in a month," she says, fidgeting a little in her seat. She hasn't done that in so long, since the beginning.

He shrugs. "Nothin' really to share."

She nods and looks away. "Right."

"What about you?"

She bites her bottom lip and it takes a while for her to meet his gaze. "I'm telling him today. After this."

She was supposed to tell him weeks ago. He thinks. Maybe months. Sometimes he thinks time is fucking with him.

"Alright. Good luck, then."

She blinks. "That's it?"

"What else is there to say? I hope he doesn't dump you for speaking with a criminal?"

Her shoulders drop. "Cook."

"Whatever."

He hates the way he can see her heart breaking in her eyes. She stands up, leaning forward across the table so she can briefly kiss his forehead before leaving.

**

James Cook, waste of space, nothing, useless. Nothing.

But he was something – Paddy thought he was, as misguided as it was, and Freddie, fucking Freddie he misses his fucking best mate fuck, and JJ and Naomi and even fucking Effy, she cared, he knows she did.

Katie.

He screws his eyes shut and convinces himself that what he thinks he's feeling isn't anything.

~**~

Katie does as promised: she invites Drew to her flat, brews tea and leaves biscuits on the table and tells him about Cook. She starts with college and the destructive love of Freddie and Effy, how she and Cook got burned, Cook most of all. Katie didn't care about Effy – Cook loved Freddie with all he had.

Before she realizes it, she's talking about the girl in the club and the drugs. Cook escaping jail and Effy's mental breakdown and –

"We were all smashed and Cook was – he always went hard and he caught Foster – Effy's counselor – spying on us and he followed him. He found Freddie's bloody clothes –" she stops talking, her throat closing up.

Drew takes her hands between his. She loves his skin – a lovely olive tan and beautiful. She stares at them and continues, "Foster broke his ribs and fucked his knee up. Cook just defended himself. Defended Freddie."

She swallows.

Only one was going to get out alive and better Cook than Foster.

She can tell he's reeling – she doesn't know what he thought about her monthly trips but she's sure he never even considered this.

"That's admirable."

She almost thought she imagined it until she asks him to repeat it and he says the same words. That's admirable.

She doesn't know why this is rubbing her the wrong way – that he trusts her judgment – but after they hug for a minute, she lies about needing to take care of something for a client just to breathe.

**

She starts writing a letter to Cook before eventually tossing it in the rubbish bin.

**

She looks up JJ on Facebook and his account is gone, so she searches for his girlfriend, who luckily is still public and has her current location listed.

Fucking Wales.

But the best part is, her phone number is still there.

**

She tries her when she has a break between appointments and she's sitting alone in the office. Her breathing is loud and uneven as the phone rings.

"Hello?"

She swallows. "Lara Lloyd?"

"Yeah, this is she!"

She clenches his jaw and tries to breathe evenly. "Hi, I don't know if you remember me, it's been a few years, but I'm Katie Fitch? Emily's twin sister?"

Silence.

"I just want to know if JJ's okay," Katie says softly, her throat closing up.

She hears Lara exhale. "He's doing really well. He's at the top of his class at university."

Vague, but Katie could track him down. It would be an arduous process, but it's possible. "That's really good. I'm happy to hear that."

"He's doing fine leaving the past in the past," Lara continues pointedly.

"Alright."

"…Do you…um…?"

"I see Cook every month," she says a little sharper than intended. "He misses his last best friend."

"Look, Katie –"

"I'm not asking anything from him. I understand. But in case he's curious or has a change of heart, I still have the same number." Pause. "And this is for Cook, who still loves JJ with everything he has left."

Lara hangs up. Katie goes down the street to the closest bar and downs a double tequila.

**

She's surprised when Cook calls her while she's going over flower arrangements with a bride and her mother.

"I'm so sorry, I've been expecting this call, but trust me, the fourth arrangement will go beautifully with the hall," Katie says quickly and rushes out of the shop to answer. "Cook!"

"Katiekins – how are ya?"

"Struggling with clients right now. I swear this mum and daughter clash on everything on purpose," she says with a giant smile on her face.

"Ah, well, I'm sure you like the challenge."

"I do – it's like a victory for me when they go along with what I say. That's the worst bit – they both have terrible taste."

He laughs and elation makes her feel like she's floating. "Everyone who has a taste that's not exactly yours is terrible."

"Too true." Her face almost hurts from smiling so hard but she doesn't care. "How are you? I've missed you. I'm glad you called."

"Yeah?" She can imagine him smiling. "Just felt right."

"It was. I, um, told Drew. He took it very well."

"Really."

"Yeah, no fighting, no anything. He's really understanding."

"He probably sensed that fighting you on it would end with him losing a limb or his cock."

"Probably."

"Well…that's good, then. A relief for you."

"Yeah, it is. I mean, it sucks not feeling like people will understand such a huge, important portion of my life. It's like a weight is off my chest."

"Huge and important?"

"I walked into that one."

He bursts out laughing, like he used to all the time in college, and says, "Kit Kat, don't ever change."

She carries that with her for the rest of the day.

**

"Are you seeing…Cook tomorrow?"

"Yeah, but I'll be back in time for Sam's birthday," Katie says as she gets out of bed to brush her teeth. She gives him a saucy wink as he stares openly at her bare arse.

"Would you like company?" he asks as he rolls onto his stomach to check his phone.

"Where? To the prison?" Her mouth is full of toothpaste and some rolls down her chin. She quickly wipes it off and spits into the sink.

"Yeah – I mean it's a long drive."

"I've been doing it for years now – it's not terrible. I get a lot of phone calls done."

(She uses those times to check in on the Stonems. Effy seems to be doing quite well these days.)

"I don't doubt it." He smiles. "I'd like to be there for you," he tells her.

She puts the toothbrush away and crawls back into bed. "You're so good to me."

He curls her hair behind her ear and her breath hitches in her throat. She's never been treated so well by a boy and it's so lovely. She kisses him until her lips are numb and tingly and she eventually has to brush her teeth a second time.

**

It's nice having company on the way to see Cook. The drive is long, but Drew fills the time with questions about Cook. Who he was before, who he is now, etc.

"Wow."

"What?" she asks as they're pulling into the prison.

"Nothing, I'm just surprised that you know him so well. I know you see him as much as you can, but still, when you think about it – it's not a lot of time."

She turns off the ignition and thinks about it for a moment. "We just make the most of what we get. We fuck up sometimes, but we fix it."

**

Her heart jumps when she sees Cook sitting at his usual table. She doesn't realize how hard she's smiling until he pokes one of her cheeks. "That dimple is adorable," he teases before hugging her.

She exhales into his chest and holds on until a nearby guard clears her throat.

She sits down across from him and she doesn't realize how much she's seriously missed him until she automatically reaches across the table for his hand.

The corner of his mouth twitches and he takes her hand. She tries not to shiver.

"How are you doing?" she asks.

"Alright. Very busy life," he jokes. "I think I read more this past month than I ever had in school."

"That's good for you." She notices the pile of papers under their laced hands and taps them with her free one. "What are these?"

"That's another thing I've been working on." He lets go of her hand and places his on either side of the paper. "Y'know I've been doing art in therapy and rec and shit."

"Yeah…"

He shrugs. "This is some of it. Don't you fucking dare laugh."

She forces the smile of her face. "Totally serious. I promise."

He exhales and adjourns his trademark 'fuck it' expression and flips over the work.

Her eyes widen and as she admires one after the other. Splashes of bright, vibrant colors saturating darkness (Naomi would like it) and blood splatter ruining perfect landscapes (Emily would love that one) and –

She bites her bottom lip at one painting of scraped knees clad in torn jeans and bruised knuckles. "I hated him for what he did to me. I never really forgave him for getting me involve in that fucking bloody mess with Effy."

He nods. "I didn't really forgive him either."

She looks up and her chin quivers. "I never told you how happy I am that you're here." She sniffs and she tries to keep it together, but seeing him and saying these things makes her a wreck. "I know this – prison – is awful, but I'm so fucking grateful that you're here and not with Freddie, okay?" Her face crumbles and she hands her face in her hands. "I'm sorry if that makes me a horrid, selfish cunt, but I don't care."

"Katie…"

She peaks over her hands and his eyes are bright. "Sometimes I wished I didn't make it," he admits softly. "But now I don't."

He flips over the last painting and it's her. The edges are smudged and the colors are wild, not at all realistic, different from the other pieces she's seen. "This is beautiful," she says because she doesn't know how else to respond.

"I was experimenting," he says while shrugging. "Dunno if I'll stick to that kind of style." He slides everything toward her. "You can keep them. If ya want."

"Yes," she says immediately. "Of course." She goes through everything again. "Em would love this," she says about the one that looks like blood stained it.

"You can give it to her."

"I will. I'm seeing her in a few weeks to take some of her stuff while she goes abroad."

He blinks in surprise. "Last I heard she and Naoms were fighting about it."

"They decided the separation would be for the best."

"Huh."

She checks the clock and they don't have much time; she hates leaving him sad. "Anyone give you shit for painting?"

He laughs a little. "At first, but then they realized how fucking good I am and don't care. Besides, I think they like doing the art to eat away at group therapy."

After they hug, he dries a stray tear from the corner of her eye. "Cheer up, buttercup. It'll be alright."

She smiles. "Right. I'll see you in two weeks?"

He frowns. "Can't. Meeting my lawyer. Y'know, with parole shit coming up next year."

"Call me, then."

"Will do." Then he grins and reaches out, a finger gently running over the fucking hickey Drew left last night. "Tell the boyfriend I said hello."

She flushes. "I'm going to punch him."

"Can't blame him, can ya?"

She doesn't know how to respond to that but smile.

**

She sneaks the paintings into the boot of her car and when Drew asks what she's putting in there, she tells the truth, except he's never going to see the portrait of her.

**

After her only meeting in the morning, she drives to Cook's mum's house. Even though she knows Cook's mum – Ruth (not really much of a mum, is she?) – came into money, she's still not prepared for the lavish home she drives up to.

She adjusts her blazer and pushes her shoulders back before she rings the doorbell. After a minute of silence, she rings again. This time, she can hear something falling and two people cursing. She holds her head up high as Ruth opens the door.

She's a little drunk and she's definitely been having sex.

"Oh, it's you. That tart," she says with a scowl.

Katie smiles. "Yes, me. How are you? May I come in? There's something I'd like to talk to you about. It's rather important."

"Fine, fine, get on with it," she grumbles, stumbling back into the house, leaving Katie to shut the door behind them.

"Is Paddy here?"

"He's somewhere," his mum says with a flippant hand movement.

Katie shakes her head and curls her hand into a fist behind her back. "I actually wanted to talk to you about him. That you haven't allowed Paddy to write back to Cook."

Katie wants to fucking ruin her, insults streaming through her head as she tries to reason with her. It helps when Paddy comes down the stairs and gives his mum a pleading look that even a sociopath would be moved by.

"Oh, alright," Ruth says brashly. "I don't have time, so get everything put together and I'll sign off on it."

Katie smiles and stands up. "Wonderful! I'll come by sometime this week."

Paddy walks her to her car and before she gets in, she asks, "Is that all your mum's work? In the foyer?"

"Yeah. There's stuff everywhere."

She smiles a little. "Cook's better."

"What?"

"You'll find out soon." She bends down a little to kiss his forehead. "I'll see you soon."

**

She receives two surprising calls on the same day.

The first reaches her while she's driving to work and when the caller addresses himself as JJ, she has to pull to the side of the road because she's in shock.

"JJ," she repeats stupidly. "Um…how are you?"

"I'm alright. At the top of my year at university."

She rolls her eyes. "JJ, if I wanted to track you down and confront you, I would've done it, but I haven't and I won't. I know better than to force anyone into anything."

"…Alright. That's fair. I'm at Cardiff University."

"I'm happy for you."

"I'm also seeing a therapist regularly. It's really helpful."

"That's good."

"And what are you doing these days?"

"I'm working as an assistant to the top wedding planner in Bristol. I think I'll have my own clients by next year."

"That makes sense. You were always dressed nicely."

She smiles a little. "Thanks, JJ."

"So…what about…how's…how's Cook doing?"

She looks out her side window at passing traffic and thinks about how to answer this question. "He's getting on," she says after a minute.

"He's still…"

"He's in prison, yes," she answers a little sharply.

"Right, of course, I didn't – I wasn't – " he starts to stutter, sounding more like the JJ she knew at college.

"It's fine, I mean, you wouldn’t know his sentence or anything."

"Well, kind of." He explains that he's been thinking about reaching out for a few weeks, but decided to talk to Emily since he's always felt close with her.

"I'm going to fucking kill her for not –"

"I told her not to say anything, don't be upset with her. I just wanted to know everything."

"Like…"

"Like how hurt he was. The trial, the sentencing. Stuff I missed."

"Why now?"

"I think I'm ready to hear it. So…how's he really? Is he the same?"

She sighs. "JJ, it's been years. What do you think?"

"Okay, stupid question, but he's…recognizable?"

"Yes and no. It's…honestly, you'd probably be a better judge than me. I didn't know him as before I started visiting him."

"Emily told me you visit him almost twice a month."

"Yeah?" Finally she feels ready to start driving again, so she turns on the ignition.

"I'm just surprised. Did you even talk in college besides Cook probably commenting on your boobs?"

She snorts. "He still does that."

"Glad to hear. Not that – I mean –"

"It's fine, JJ," she says softly. "I don't mind it." Pause. "Are you maybe thinking about visiting?"

"No. I mean, I'm not sure. I don't think so. I'm doing very well in therapy and I don't want to think about Bristol. Ever."

"You could write to him, if you'd like. I can give you –"

"I don't think I'm ready to talk to him, Katie."

"Alright," she says, beginning to feel impatient. "Then what do you want, exactly? Do you want me to ease some guilt you may have about abandoning Cook? That he's doing okay despite your not being there? Honestly, JJ, he misses his best friends and sometimes he thinks both of you died that night. But he gets why you fucked off, he really does. He's more forgiving than I am."

"I don't doubt you know him now, but you can't judge what happened. You didn't really know him during college and you definitely don't know what he was like before then."

"I know enough." She sighs when she pulls into the lot of her work. "I'm sorry, JJ, I have work, I'm already late. Do you want me to give Cook your love?"

"You'd tell him I would anyway, I'm assuming."

"Yep," she pops her p.

He laughs. "Okay, yes, give Cook my…love."

"Call me when you're ready for an address."

"We'll see. Bye, Katie."

"Bye, JJ."

She goes through the first half of her day in a bit of a daze.

**

The second call is from Effy, whom she hasn't spoken to in over a year. Apparently she's moving to London with her parents.

"It won't be for a few months, but I just wanted to let you know."

"Oh. Well, thanks."

"And I'm sorry for what I said. That wasn't fair."

"I overreacted."

"You want to come over for a smoke sometime?"

"Sure. Wednesday night okay?"

"I'll get takeaway."

That's how she ends up eating Indian food out of containers while shaking a pack with Effy.

"Haven't heard from Pandora lately," Effy admits. "Have you?"

Katie shakes her head. "I spoke to her a couple of weeks ago. I thought she had midterms, or whatever, but it's been too long."

Effy frowns sadly, switching her cigarette to her other hand to pick up more naan with her right. "It's sad. I don't hear from anyone anymore."

"Sometimes I only think I hear from Emily because she's my sister," Katie admits. She puts down the container she was scarfing out of, done being a fat cow.

"What about Cook?"

It startles Katie just as much as it did the first time. "What about him?"

"I mean, you're still seeing him, right? You didn't stop then?"

"No, I didn't. We've discussed…everything."

Effy nods. "Right." Pause. "Has he asked about me?"

"A few times. Just wants to make sure you haven't gone completely mental," Katie partially jokes.

Effy smirks. "He has the biggest heart out of all of us."

"I know." Katie exhales the last of her cigarette and stubs it out in the overflowing ashtray.

"Since you're his keeper…I was wondering if it would be alright to see him. Before I go, I mean. Give our final farewells."

Her first, immediate answer is no. But she doesn't have the right to deny him anything when he's been denied almost everything else. "I'll ask him."

"Thanks." She looks back at the pack and decides to smoke one more. She glances at Katie, who shakes her head and Effy shuts her case and lights her cigarette. "So, tell me about your boyfriend – Drake?"

"Drew. He's great. Best I've had. In every sense of the word."

Effy laughs under her breath. "This is the longest I've gone without fucking someone. Think I might be a virgin?"

"You? Never."

**

"Have you heard from Panda recently?" Katie asks Cook over the phone.

"Nah, actually, was gonna ask you the same thing when you visited if I didn't hear from her. You too?"

"Yeah, and Effy."

"Effy?"

"Yeah, she called a few days ago. We got takeaway and talked." She'll ask him about her visiting when she sees him next. "I'll tell you about it later. Long story."

"Right. Have you talked to Emily this week?"

"Actually, I just got off the phone with her before you called. I'm going to visit her in two weeks before she heads off for abroad. It'll be a whole family affair. Should be fucking painful."

"Well, have a beer for me."

"Of course. I'm giving Emily one of your paintings. I know she'll love it."

"I know you hate Naomi – "

"I don't…hate her…"

"Just, give her one too. Since they're still out of sorts."

"Sure, whatever."

She can hear him laughing softly.

She bites her bottom lip. "How's the lawyer?"

"Fine – thinks if I continue doing what I'm doing, then I'll have a shot."

"You definitely will." There's the warning. "I'll see you next week. Love you."

She hasn't said that before. Neither has he.

"…Love you too, Kit Kat."

She puts her phone away and is so grateful that Drew will be coming by later and won't see her like this.

**

She doesn't beat around the bush – she asks him if he's interested in seeing Effy at some point within the first five minutes because she'd rather spend the rest of the hour on more important stuff, like what she's been doing at work and what's been going on in Bristol prison politics.

He clenches his jaw and looks down at his hands, which are no doubt fisted.

"You don't have to answer right away. You can play hard to get," she jokes.

He exhales. "I'll think on it. You said she's leaving, right?"

"Yeah, London. She wants to go back to school. Do something in maths – it relaxes her."

He nods. "What do you think?"

She tilts her head. "'Bout what?"

He shrugs. "'Bout seeing Effy."

She smiles and shakes her head. "You two can be annoyingly similar."

"I get that. So?"

"I think you two loved Freddie the most and this might be a good way to…gain closure. A little."

"I'll talk to the therapist about it," he says with a snort. "Might damage progress."

"Cook," she says seriously, gaining his full attention. "You don't owe her anything. If you don't think it'll do anything good, then don't see her. I can tell her I said no."

"I can't believe she asked for permission – she doesn't know she's already on the list?"

"No," Katie admits sheepishly. "But I think she's trying this new thing in which she's not being a selfish bitch."

"Huh. S'pose it's all inevitable."

She gives him a pained smile. "I guess it is."

**

While her parents are still uncomfortable about Emily's relationship with Naomi, they're getting better – their mum even asked after Naomi without looking she wanted to vomit her dinner.

Afterwards, their parents and their brother are at a hotel and Katie and Emily split a bottle of wine in Emily's flat. Naomi will be stopping by tomorrow for breakfast.

"Oh, before I forget –" Katie starts, stumbling to her feet to get to her stuff against the wall, grabbing the rolled up painting.

"I was wondering what the hell that was," Emily says.

"Well, y'know how Cook is doing art –"

"What?"

Katie stops short. "Cook. Doing art in therapy. And during rec hours –"

"He is?"

"Wait, how do you not know this? It's been going on for over a year – two, even –"

Emily laughs in disbelief. "I don't think he wanted to tell us."

"That can't be right – he wouldn't not tell Naomi."

"Look, Naomi and I always update each other whenever one of us talks to him. I'm telling you, Katie, he didn't tell us."

Katie takes a swig directly from the bottle. "Well, he gave me some of his paintings. He wanted you to have this. I have one for Naomi too." She unrolls it and spread it out a safe distance away from the wine.

Emily gapes at the painting and Katie swells with pride, pouring herself another full glass. "Wow," Emily says in surprise. "He's quite talented! This is great!" She picks it up and runs over to the blank wall behind them. "I can put it here. I'll see how much I can scrounge up for a frame. This is bloody fantastic. Thank him for me."

"You can thank him," Katie gently reminds her.

Emily drops her arms and turns to face her. "I'll write to him. We both will. Maybe after abroad…once we've figured shit out…"

"Okay."

Before Emily sits back down, she places the painting on the coffee table, making sure to clear it off before doing so.

"I have pictures of his other stuff," Katie says, pulling out her phone and handing it to her.

Emily ohs and ahs when appropriate, but then she lingers on one with a furrowed brow. "Katie," she says, sounding almost completely sober.

"What?"

Emily gives her phone back and the one of her is there. Fuck.

"Katie," Emily says again.

"What?"

"Drew hasn't seen that one, has he?"

Katie takes a long drink out of her glass. "No."

Emily sighs and leans back against the sofa. "He really fucking loves you, Jesus fuck." She starts chugging her drink.

Katie wants to say it's not like that or we're best mates of course we love each other but that's not fucking it. Tears well in her eyes and fuck wine. "Emsy."

Emily pulls her in for a hug and Katie cries.

**

The next morning, Naomi comes over to cook a large breakfast with the works, glancing over at them knowingly as the rest their heads on the table.

"Had fun last night?"

Katie groans fuck off, but it doesn't sound like it.

"Katie just realized that Cook loves her," Emily says. Fucking traitor.

"Ah," Naomi drawls. "That is a bit of a head-fuck." She turns to smile kindly at Katie. "You could do a lot worse."

"I have a boyfriend," Katie points out rather stupidly.

Naomi shrugs, checking on the bacon. "Ems, the battle is only halfway won. The fair bitch needs to come to terms with her own feelings." She takes out plates and starts filling them with food. "Whatever they may be." She places plates in front of them simultaneously. "Katie, why haven't you talked about moving in with your boyfriend of over a year?"

"He was finishing up university…and his hours DJing…" Katie lists, excuses weak.

"You sure it's not because of Cook's parole and his needing a place to stay?"

~**~

It's early to be thinking about parole – he still has a while before he can apply, but his lawyer wants him to start preparing.

"We'll submit your art, of course, and your psychologist…Ms. Clarke, will be present at the hearing. They'll want you to speak."

"No one can be with me in there?"

"Yes, approved people." He gives him a knowing look. "Katie will be there. Your mother might also."

Well, that should go well.

**

To be honest, the thought of getting out scares the ever loving fuck out of him.

He wishes he could paint on larger canvases.

**

After months, he finally gets a letter from Pandora.

Hi Cook!!!

I'm so sorry that I disappeared. School was absolutely bonkers and I barely had the time to socialize and do my work. Here are some quick updates!!!

1. I am studying abroad in AUSTRALIA. HOW COOL IS THAT?! I don't know if you'll be able to send me mail – that's a lot of postage! – but I'll try to send you something when I get there!
2. This means even less letters for a sem term – I'm almost becoming an American, obviously!
3. I think I'm in the market for a new man!!! But we'll see how it goes in Australia ;D
4. My mum moved out here, so I don't know the next time I'll be in England.

Hope you're alright!!!

All my love and more,
Pandora

He smiles fondly and folds the letter into his latest book.

**

True to her word, Panda does send a letter from Australia – a postcard with cramped handwriting telling him how brilliant it is. He pins it up on his wall and imagines himself lying on a beach before falling asleep.

**

His therapist has been talking about it for months, but it seems she finally got approval for the inmates to paint one of the walls in the enclosed courtyard.

"It'll wash off, but you'll have more space," she says with a pleased smile.

A number of the inmates scoff, but a few, notably ones he talks to in group and in the cafeteria are curious and start hesitantly applying paint to the wall.

"Why are they congregating all the way over there?" Cook asks Jason, nodding towards the ten or so blokes only painting on half the wall.

"'Cause you're the great artist." Jason nudges him in the ribs. "So, amaze us, Michelangelo."

He hates having eyes on his back, but he ignores it by doing the first thing he's wanted to do since he first laid eyes on that beautiful, dirty blank space: throw a can of fucking paint on it.

He picks green for creation and once that's a mess, he dives in, using his arms and legs for wide, long strokes (heh) and he's in a sweat by the time he's filled half of it.

It takes the guards a few tries for them to break through Cook's concentration and get him back inside. He doesn't look back at the unfinished piece.

**

"Do I get to see it when it's done?"

"Dunno – probably not. Have to walk past unsavory characters to get to it."

She can't look him in the eye.

"What's going on?" he asks.

She finally looks at him, but it's only for a moment. "I'm just…rethinking some things. With Drew."

"Ah." He grimaces. He's such a fucking prick – Katie deserves to be happy and treated well – Drew seems to fit the bill. "Effy can come," Cook blurts instead.

Her face falls a little. "Oh. Sure, yeah, no problem. We'll work out a day," she responds, all professional.

He nods and looks away, swallowing.

(They don't talk too much.)

**

Katie tells him about Effy to prepare him, but he can't really do that, not when he checks a calendar and sees that there's a visitor's day on The Day. He tells her such and he's never heard her more furious, promising that she'll never fucking bring her that day.

Effy may have lost it a few times, but she's still Effy – she'll find a way to be there.

(He'd do the same if the roles were reversed.)

**

His stomach is in knots before he even wakes up and he barely makes it to the toilet to puke in once he is.

(Finally, finally after all this fucking time, this is it.)

**

From what Katie has told him, he's afraid of what she'll look like across the table. But he's a tosser – he should know better than to worry about someone in Katie's care.

Effy almost looks like herself – save for the no makeup and her hair is neatly pulled back, but her leather jacket is still the same and he remembers playing with her numerous chains so long ago.

She gives him a half smile in greeting.

"Eff," he exhales, clenching his hands into fists under the table so he won't have to deal with them shaking.

"Pretend I'm not here," Katie says, pulling out a magazine. Their hug was stiff and uncomfortable; she didn't think Effy would ambush her at the lot, having stolen her mum's car.

He wants to reach across the table and hold Katie's hand or something, do something to thank her, but he can't.

Cook and Effy stare at each other for a few seconds. He doesn't know if this is awkward or not.

"It's good to see you, Cook," she says, arms crossed over her chest.

"Yeah, uh, you too. You look good."

"Considering. You, too."

"Yeah, well, considering."

It's Freddie's birthday today.

"So, uh, any particular reason why you've come here? Today?" he asks, not willing to wait another minute (he's been doing too much fucking waiting to begin with).

She flinches and looks down at the table. "I'm sorry I haven't come."

He glances over to Katie, who seems to be engrossed in her magazine. He almost wishes she would drop the act and just watch.

"It's fine. I get it."

Effy looks to Katie with fondness. "Katie's been great. She's really been there for me, even when I was unbearable. Did you know when she didn't visit, she called every week?"

"Yeah, she does that."

(I knew you'd understand that.)

"It was too hard for me, before. It's still hard now, but. I wanted to tell you something."

(I love him, Cook. That's what I came here to say.)

He already feels his insides tears apart before she says what she has to say.

"Thank you."

Katie crumpling the magazine in her fisted hands breaks the silence. She's still looking down, pretending to read.

"You found out what happened to…" Effy pauses, gathering her bearings. "To Freddie. And…I'm at peace, knowing that it's over."

She reaches out across the table, patting the surface and all he can do is stare at her nails, perfectly lacquered and he doesn't know who this is.

Effy finally stands up; the chair scraping against the floor makes him cringe. "I'll see you next week," she says to Katie, who isn't looking up from her magazine.

"No, you won't," Katie says flatly, not sparing her a glance.

Effy's eyes widen a little, but eventually she leaves. Cook watches her walk away, hoping that she'll look back and he'll find his Effy, the one he fucking loved, despite everything going tits up, but –

There's a clunk and the jangling of bracelets that makes him tear his gaze away.

Katie's hand is stretched out on the table, palm up. He looks up, struck by how hard she's trying not to cry. Such a difference from Effy's dead gaze.

"Take my hand, you twat," she hisses fiercely.

He unclenches one of his hands, joints stiff when he reaches out. He's barely touching her when she grips his hand so tightly that she may just fucking snap a bone or two.

"I'm sorry," she says, voice low enough that the guard may not hear her. "I'm sorry she said that, I'm sorry that today is utter shit now and I'm so sorry you're here suffering and," she stops, her breath hitching in her throat. He's losing circulation in his hand, but all he wants to do is make her stop crying.

He reaches his other hand across the table to cover hers. They don't say anything for the rest of the time – Katie cries and Cook tries to keep it together for her.

When they stand up, he hugs her so tightly that she might not be able to breathe right, but she gives it back just as good.

**

He wants to punch something, someone, anything, but he remembers the feel of Katie's soft hand between his and he screams in his pillow.

**

His therapist is proud of him for managing his anger. His lawyer is beginning to gather what's needed to apply for probation.

Katie breaks up with Drew.

"I thought you loved him," he says, confused and maybe selfishly, a little pleased.

"I did, but not enough," she admits.

He hums in thought. "Have you seen Effy off?"

She exhales in frustration. "Said goodbye and told her to fuck off until she grew up. Who knows how long that will take." Pause. "Are you okay?"

"Think so," he says honestly. "Good to know there's nothing there."

"…Really."

"No one's more shocked than me, mate."

"It's good, yeah?"

It feels like a fucking weight is off his chest, but he just says, "Yeah, really good."

**

He finishes his painting – it’s messy and he didn't realize he was adding eyes and smiles until he found Katie staring back at him and Freddie smiling.

It all washes away the next day in a massive storm and the pavement is stained with paint

The good news: there will be an oral hearing ("This means your release is a serious possibility," his lawyer explains) and he can have Katie come as an observer.

The bad news: there's a fucking oral hearing and he may actually puke all over the Board out of nerves.

He doesn't want to get Paddy's hopes up, so he tells him about the case, but not when it will be or what it means that it's in person.

**

There's Katie standing in modest heels and probably her most proper outfit – no cleavage and no leg. Bummer.

She smiles weakly and gives him a tight hug. "I have no doubt in my mind," she whispers by his ear before kissing his cheek. "None."

"That makes one of us," he says quietly.

"Can we have a minute?" she calls over his shoulder to his lawyer.

"One minute. Don't want to keep them waiting."

She stares at Cook with a hard, determined expression. "Cook, you've grown so much over the years and you're one of the best people I know. They'll know it too."

He reaches out to lightly touch her cheek. "Hopefully they'll see me like you do."

"Alright, time to get in, let's go," his lawyer says, not unkindly, ushering them into the room.

**

"…James Cook has grown from the tumultuous boy that he was into the man you see today…" his lawyer says during his summation of the evidence presented. Cook tries not to snort. He doesn't feel very much like a man, but he thinks maybe he isn't so much a stupid kid anymore.

**

(He vomits as soon as they're let go and he's notified that he'll be contacted within fourteen days of their decision.)

**

"Cook, you have to calm the fuck down or someone is going to beat the shit out of you to make you stop moving," Jason says in warning as they're sitting in the cafeteria. "And I'm including myself as a possible candidate for beating the shit out of you."

"You couldn't take me," Cook says flippantly. "Half of yas can't."

"I dunno, we got some rough ones over the past two months."

Cook shrugs, picking at his meal. "I'm never gonna be able to fucking eat again. I'd rather just get it over with."

Jason snorts, taking a huge bite of whatever sloppy mess they serve for breakfast. "You're getting out. You're too upstanding now. The real question is, are you going to get your head out of your arse and do something about sweet, sweet Katie once you're on the outside?"

Cook ignores him.

**

He nearly shits himself when he receives mail and one of them is from The Parole Board for England and Wales.

And he actually blacks out for thirty seconds when he reads that he's scheduled for release on license with supervision in exactly two months.

**

His hands are fucking shaking when he dials Katie's number.

"WHAT'S THE VERDICT?" Katie essentially screams on the phone.

"Jesus Fucking Christ," Cook laughs. "I think you're more wound up than me."

"DON'T TEASE."

"I'm out in two months. On license."

After a few seconds of silence, Cook distances the phone from his ear, which is a good thing because the high-pitched scream Katie makes causes everyone in the queue to wince.

"COOK!!!" Now she's crying.

"Where are you?"

"I just got out of the flower shop, I'll probably never be able to come in there again, but I don't fucking care oh my God I can't – I'm so fucking happy right now. Who do you want me to call? Everyone?"

He blinks. "Uh, yeah, might as well."

She squeals again and Cook doesn't get the phone away in time. "Bloody fuck," he mutters, but he's beaming. "Alright, I gotta go, you're killing everyone in the queue."

"Not at all sorry! And Cook?"

"Yeah, Kit Kat?"

"Start thinking about what you want to do once you're out."

He hangs up and actually clicks his fucking heels with a whistle.

(There are a lot of fucking things he wants to do once he gets out: wear different clothes, eat curry and burgers and chips and crisps and drink anything other than milk and water, paint on real canvases and maybe even give a go at sculpture. But what he really wants to do first thing is exist with Katie without bars.)

**

He calls Naomi and she gives a similar reaction – squealing and bursting his fucking eardrum. She tells him that she and Emily are trying to get out of their respective jobs, but if they can't, they'll just see him a day later and spend the weekend with him.

"You know," Naomi says, her first normally pitched sentence, "I have a colleague who adores your paintings. So much so that she's interested in buying."

He blinks. "What?"

"Don't be so surprised – you're really good."

He snorts. "Dunno 'bout that, but…it's pretty cool."

"It's fucking awesome, Cook. You know what this means, right?"

"What?"

"It means you're going to be fucking amazing."

He runs his teeth over his bottom lip.

"I'm serious. It's going to be really hard, but you're gonna be alright."

"Let's hope so, Naomikins."

**

He writes a letter to Panda, but he probably won't hear back for two weeks.

He's scattered, unsure if time is passing at lightning speed or if he's aging ten years in every day.

He's so fucking scared – he's losing sleep – but there's a thrill he hasn't really felt in years. Antici-fucking-pation, man. If he goes into it headfirst like he used to, it may all end up alright.

**

Katie's last visit comes and goes and he's meeting with his lawyer, getting specifics of his parole: notifying the Probation Service of his address (Katie's flat), reporting to his supervising officer on a weekly basis (for now) at a nearby police station. His lawyer coughs when he explains that Cook will have to notify his supervising officer of 'any developing intimate relationships.'

"You're damn lucky you were approved to live with her – don't fuck it up."

Cook snorts. In the grand scheme of things – can he really fuck up?

**

It's lights out on his last night and he's wide-awake, like he just took a hit of coke.

"Y'nervous?" Jason asks quietly.

"Yeah," Cook admits.

"You'll be alright."

"Let's fuckin' hope, man."

Eventually he dozes off, but as soon as he hears guards stomping about, he's wide-awake again.

**

He's given an allowance to get him through the week, should he need it, and his old clothes, which only fit at the moment because he's lost a bit of weight, even though he grew a couple of inches. His first scheduled meeting is on Monday, a few days later – just to get acclimated.

It's unnerving how easy it is leaving while being escorted out.

He doesn't realize how long this process has taken until he finds the sun high in the sky and his favorite guard saying, "She's a sweet girl waiting that long."

He looks ahead and there she fucking is.

She pushes off the large truck she's leaning against (where's her car?), whipping off her sunglasses and grinning.

"Hope to not see you again," Mitchell says.

"Likewise."

He takes a deep breath and starts walking toward her. After a few steps, the backseat door opens and Naomi climbs out, followed by Emily.

"What the fuck?" Cook calls out, picking up the pace.

"We wanted to surprise you!"

Once he's closer, the door opens again, and –

"Panda?"

Pandora runs the short distance and hugs the hell out of him. "Thank Katie for getting me here," she says in his ear. She pulls back and smiles cutely at him. "Oh, and one thing." She kisses him – it's soft and brief and it takes him by surprise. "Sorry, Cookie, I don't think the willy-waggle is gonna happen. But it's okay."

He bumps his forehead against hers. "I'll get over it."

He looks between Naomi, Emily, and Katie, an arm still around Panda's waist, unable to believe he has –

"Can I come out now?"

It's really fucking embarrassing that he starts to cry a little when Paddy pops up through the sunroof – he's so fucking big, but his smile is still the same and how he's still looking at Cook like he's the best person he knows fucking ruins him.

"How – is this allowed?" Cook rounds to Katie in disbelief.

"Of course – got your mum's permission and all," she says kindly. "Wouldn't be a proper greeting without everyone, yeah?"

The door opens a final time.

This time he actual bawls like a fucking baby, but it's fine since JJ is crying too.

"I'm sorry," JJ says, "I wasn't –"

Cook wipes JJ's face dry. "You look fucking good."

JJ pats Cook's chest. "So do you." He looks to where Katie is and smiles. "We'll talk later."

Cook nods and runs his sleeve over his face, even though nothing can be done about his sorry state. He turns to face Katie and he's at a fucking loss – she's given him everything

"Cook?"

He clears his throat. "Yeah?"

"Get the hell over here," she orders, trying to be sexy, but she ends up choking up, bringing a hand to her mouth to quiet herself.

This part is easy – bringing her in and her resting her head on his chest. He twitches after the usual amount of time has passed as a reflex, but he's here – outside with his friends and family and he's going to fucking hold her as long as he fucking well wants.

He doesn't realize how long that is until Naomi says, "Alright, not that this isn't sweet and everything, but we're fucking starving and I really need coffee."

Cook's stomach grumbles very loudly and JJ pats him on the back.

"I haven't eaten in days, fair warning," Cook says, finally pulling away from Katie, but just enough so he can still keep an arm tightly around her.

"What do you want?" Naomi asks.

"Let's get the fuck outta here first and I'll figure it out along the way."

Everyone starts climbing into the truck, but Cook grabs hold of Katie's hand to keep her from moving.

"Thank you, Katie," he says softly.

She reaches out to cup his cheek. "Thank you, Cook."

He furrows his brow. "Why?"

"The same reasons I'm thanking you, probably." She opens the passenger door for him. "Come on. I'm whisking you away."

He leans forward and kisses the corner of her mouth. He's surprised she wears vanilla balm – figured she'd be cherry-flavored. "You already have."

She flushes. "That was good."

"Yeah?"

She shoves him into the car. "Wanker."

He forces himself to look ahead as they leave the gates and get on the road. He forces himself to breathe and focus on JJ laughing with Paddy in the way back, Emily and Naomi singing along to a pop song he hasn't heard before. Panda is telling him about Australia, but he's watching her arms move and her eyes light up, smelling her shampoo. Katie is staring at the road, her hair loose and blowing in the wind. She hasn't stopped smiling. Neither has he, but Katie sure looks nice doing it.

She looks over at him and beams, the image seared into his head and he's definitely going to paint it, but for now he reaches over to her hand on the stick shift and doesn't let go.